UW-Madison Reviews Compost Survey and Updates Food Waste Management

In Fall 2021, UW–Madison suspended its food waste collection program. From August 4th, 2021 to June 20th, 2022, the Office of Sustainability collected over 9,000 individual responses to its survey related to food scarp collection and disposal. (ADD MORE HERE)

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*Does not include responses about contact information, “How frequently did you utilize the previous food waste collection program,” and “Are you interested in helping with a new food waste collection program at the UW-Madison?”

**Though 1,276 people took the survey, not everyone completed it.

Key Findings

The post-composting program survey was taken mostly by UW-Madison students and academic staff with few identifying as faculty. Most respondents had some awareness of the program; however, almost a quarter didn’t know it existed. The service wasn’t used often by survey takers; only a third had taken advantage of it. Those who knew about it either believed the program was successful and made them feel purposeful or suggested improvements to the program (next slide). Suggestions were mostly creating awareness and the bins’ locations, designs, and signage.

If a program were introduced, respondents said they would use it. Though, the service would need to be improved. All changes purposed by the survey, including universal design and better education, were accepted.

Respondents were concerned about how much food waste the university produces and believed it was unacceptable that the material was going to the Dane County Landfill. Furthermore, they said that UW-Madison and the City of Madison should have a sustainable solution for food waste. If the solution was for a vendor, survey takers would prefer it not to be from a private company. For written suggestions, respondents said individuals should be responsible for their own composting waste instead of the university or city.

Respondents said that the composting system was not widely known, some not knowing it themselves, and asked that the University had more awareness about it. Many who didn’t know the composting program was available or didn’t use it were because it was inaccessible to them as they were mostly in the dining halls and dorms. Hence, responders suggested that the program should have been in more places such as academic buildings or staff break rooms. Those who were off-campus students desired that the program be expanded to the City of Madison as there is no composting service.

Respondents who did use asked that the composting bins had better signage. Many reported that those who used the service were disposing of ineligible items like plastic and metal. They suggested the bins should have had a distinct, easy-to-understand design about what is and what isn’t acceptable (including home food waste). As well, this signage should have also been universal across the campus. Respondents stated the signage contradicted itself in different buildings or was frankly non-existent. Users also requested the bins had been changed more frequently to increase their use. Additionally, if the bins hadn’t been changed recently, the area would smell heavily causing displeasure to the program. A few people desired the composting program had expanded to more types of material such as compostable or biodegradable products.

Next Steps on Food Waste Management and Updates

Compost Collection

From the results of the composting survey, it is crucial UW-Madison find a sustainable way of reducing and disposing of its food waste. If it were to compost it, the university will need to improve the previous program to make it more accessible and user-friendly. Unlike the previous program, it would only collect at locations that generate a large amount of food waste, and employing trained UW staff located in the “back of house” will be considered. These targeted locations have processes for creating a clean material stream. Like many food waste collection programs, contamination remains a notable concern.

As of Summer 2022, UW-Madison has written up contracts with various local vendors to take the compost. One of these includes a pilot year project with the West Madison Agricultural Research Station (WMARS). The project was accepted and WMARS began collecting food waste in July 2022 at Gordon and Four Lakes Markets. However, this is only a year-long pilot project. A long-term provider is still needed.

For small food waste generation, there was a project proposed for delivering Badger Market compost to F.H. King’s Eagle Heights Community Gardens plot. This was not accepted due to specific composting procedures at the Gardens. However, a new project is underway to use one of Badger Market’s food waste for an upcoming composting seminar run by CALS teaching faculty member Tom Bryan and senior Jacob Breit.

New Greenfund Project for Food Waste Reduction

Rheta’s Market will be equipped with Leanpath technology, a weight and photograph data collector, in the 2022-2023 academic year from a Greenfund project. UW Housing and Dining employees will weigh and take a photo of leftover food from the kitchen to the device. Over time, staff will begin to understand its back-of-house food waste generation and how they can take actions to limit it such as purchasing less of certain products and creating new meals with leftovers.

The company claims that its equipment will achieve a 50% reduction in food waste. Leanpath provided the campus calculations on the savings they would receive if they implemented the technology to four of the “all-you-can-eat” facilities. Using the EPA’s wARM calculation model, UW-Madison would be saving 45 million gallons of water, 29 tons of CO2 equivalents, and 112,000 pounds of food. As well, UW Dining would be saving $46,000 per year.

This project is an excellent win in sustainability on campus. Sustainability is defined to benefit the environment, the community, and the economy. By implementing this on campus, the environment is gaining by having reduced CO2 emissions. As for the community, the staff will have less tedious tasks and the campus will feel better knowing that their food commits to a smaller footprint.